THE SOLE OF ELM TREASON
by Andy Roman
Allow me to skip back through the cobwebs of the calendar and revisit the very early days of Elm Treason.
These were the embryonic days of the band when we had just decided to record our first full album together. These were the times when I (a nice Jewish kid from Brooklyn) was still accompanying my wife to her church to (among other things) watch Bobby do his thing as St. Mark’s Music Director.
Often times, after services, when everybody would trickle down to the basement for deliciously fattening post-worship snack treats and hardly-brewed coffee, Bobby and I would talk about the new songs we were creating. We were spitting out ideas at a pretty good clip in those days, as I recall. Many of these fast and furious intentions would eventually turn into our first album “Days of Reaction.” But these were the times of creative infancy. We were still learning each others’ ways and methods, our quirks and mannerisms.
Sometimes, in the church basement, as the elders sat around dipping melba toast into steaming cups of tea, Bobby would grab a beat up guitar and show me an idea he had. This was our collective wont after services. While the heart of the congregation kibbitzed around the basement picnic tables solving the world’s problems (if not bitching about them), we’d be off in a corner somewhere exchanging musical nuggets.
One of those days saw Bobby bring a piece of music that would eventually become the song “Honey Feet,” easily one of our most popular and requested songs … ever.
It was a nifty little blues progression with a few tasty chords thrown in to break up the predictability. I liked it from the first. He had no lyrics for it, just that groovy little progression. It was in those early days that we established the Elm Treason template: When one of us had an idea, we’d hand it off to the other and see what he could come up with. So I took a crude demo recording of “Bobby’s Blues Thing” (as I called it) home to see what I could do with it
I came up with a melody line fairly quickly. I played the recording over and over again while humming this new melody scheme so that it would sink deeply into my DNA. I wanted to know it back and front so that I could concentrate on the words.
Unfortunately, for a while, nothing came. I let it go.
Then, one day, on the Uptown Q train in Manhattan, an extraordinarily fine looking young gal sashayed onto the train with enough jiggle to alert the seismograph people at Fordham University. She was, to quote a phrase, hot as hell. I was fortuitous enough to have her sit directly across from me on the half-filled subway car with absolutely no obstructions between her and my swelling salivation. She had a smile that could stop time itself and a dress that showcased her most tangible qualities. This girl could keep a row of young men seated to avoid themselves embarrassment.
Then… something happened.
Something diverted my attention, yanked my epoxied eyes from her face and jerked them elsewhere. Something hijacked my focus from what was probably the most beautiful girl I had ever seen on a New York City subway train to another target. It wasn’t her smile or her dress.
It was her feet.
They were almost naked, save for the thin leather strap sloped across the top and attached to the bottom slab of material on either side.
It was, specifically, her toenails that enchanted me – her almost electric toenails. Each nail was painted a different color… and each color was as vibrant as any I’d ever seen. It was as if each toe had a tiny lightbulb attached to the under side of the nail. I felt like I was on a mild LSD trip.
They were that vivid. I couldn’t take my eyes of off them.
She (sadly) got off three stops later.. and man, the way she took her step… it was…. almost a religious experience for me. She had rhythm in a way I still can’t explain.
It was then the lyric idea for “Bobby’s Blues Thing” hit me like a Warner Brothers cartoon anvil: Feet! The song could be about…. feet! A hot chick with even hotter feet!
When I got off the train at 34th and Broadway, I started thinking to myself “That chick had some funky ass feet.” (Yes, I’m a New Yorker. I even think in crude language). And before too long, I started plugging that lyric into the deeply engrained melody I had rolling around in the old brain pan… “Hey, hey woman with the funky feet. You got that glide and you look so good to me…”
I think I had the idea. In fact, I knew I had the idea. There’s nothing like that feeling of the damn bursting after a long bout of creative constipation.
I immediately texted Bobby.
I told him the entire story and came to the punch line…. “Funky Feet!” (It was a long text). I waited for a response. I waited for the inevitable “attaboy!” I knew had to come.
Long pause with no reply.
Even considering how long I calculated it would take to read my cell phone novella, the pause was towering.
Nothing for a while.
He said he loved the idea, but… he’d have to think about the title.
I stopped in my tracks.
I re-read his text several times. I stood there on 37th Street in a kind of shock. I read his text yet again.
He’d have to think about the title?? What????
Talk about a buzzkill of historic proportion. I could have taken a rusty butter knife to the spleen with more grace.
As we would BOTH come to realize later, whenever either one of us said something like, “Let me mull that over in my brain a while…” or “Let me play it a few times to get used to it…” or “Let me think about that..” it really meant that the idea was not landing well. In some cases, it was an outright cloaked way of saying, “I don’t care for that.”
Crush my soul, why don’t you?
This was an inspired idea. What’s not to like? What’s not to love??????
I started texting back with extra punctuation marks, my way of digitally expressing the peaks and valleys of my emotional state. He responded promptly each time, but was not budging. No matter what I said, he just wasn’t digging “Funky Feet.” He said he loved the idea of the song, but the title was gnawing at him.
We kept going back and forth.
I could sense the hairs on the back of his digital neck start to spike with each text I sent – although, admittedly, his threshold is far greater than mine when it comes to uncorking the classic “artist’s temperament.”
We went pillar to post, seesawing, vacillating – our first genuine artistic disagreement – but there was no getting around it. We disagreed and it was border-lining on ugly.
The source of contention was the word “funky.” Simply put, he heard that word differently than I did. It lived in his brain in a far disparate place than it did in mine.
To me, it was meant to convey a vibe or a style… like “funky music.” Bobby, on the other hand, heard the word as meaning “dirty” or “disgusting” or “foul.” (“That boy’s toes are pretty funky”).
Bobby said he’d try to come up with a word he liked better, one that I could agree to. I tried but could not (or perhaps would not, if the truth be told) arrive at one I liked better than “funky” on my own, so I relented. And since it was obvious that the song was never going to be called “Funky Feet,” I decided this would not be the hill I’d die on. Besides, if it was better for the song, I was all for it.
The rest, as they say, is history. Bobby came up with “Honey” to replace “Funky,” and I had to concede that it was a pretty damn cool replacement. Today, there’s no way in hell I could imagine it being anything else.
It helped cement our attitudes and approaches toward what we do… It’s not about me. It’s not about Bobby. It’s not about ego. It’s about the song. “Is this best for the song?” would be our mantra.
Incidentally, an interesting little addendum to this song’s siring…
I had most of the words completed a week or so later. It was just about finished, but I had hit a snag. I couldn’t come up with a few lines for the second verse that I found satisfying. Everything I came up with sucked, frankly. Bobby, as it turned out, had come over for a rare weekday session – a very quick one at that (in those days, we worked on Sundays almost exclusively) – and I presented him with my impediment.
He came up with what, to this day, I believe is the song’s best – and most clever – line: “With your toes painted rhythm and blues, I had to have you.”
Too good. And that was that.